Finding Grace in Giving Thanks

“Give thanks,” Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). Notice just how all encompassing this instruction is. Paul doesn’t refer to giving thanks in some or even most circumstances, nor simply when one feels like it. No, according to his words, giving thanks in every situation is not only appropriate, but it’s the very will of God.

This raises an important question: how can God expect his people to follow this command in even circumstances of great difficulty, suffering, etc.? In answer to this, we need to first keep in mind that Paul is writing to a church, to people who have believed the gospel, putting their faith in Christ. By definition, that meant they possessed great and certain promises, a fact that is also true of every believer since.

Foremost among these promises is their sure future hope…how the story will end, so to speak. Jesus promised to give his people eternal life, a life no one is able to snatch away from his Father’s hand (John 10:27-28). Paul himself taught that Christians can look forward to a glorious resurrected body, imperishable and free of weakness (1 Cor. 15:42-49). John spoke of new heavens and new earth, a place without crying, mourning, or pain, where God’s people will dwell joyfully with him forever. These things will happen. That much is sure, no matter the present circumstances. And for that, we can certainly be thankful at all times.

But that’s certainly not the sum of what believers might be thankful for even in very trying times. Paul also had this to say: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The implications of this promise, if rightly understood, are life altering. They assure us that literally everything that happens in our lives, no matter how difficult, is being used ultimately for our good. That means relational difficulties, sicknesses, accidents, setbacks in our jobs, the death of loved ones…everything. In God’s economy, all things eventually produce good for his people. This is not some sappy greeting card cliché. It’s a solid rock to cling to amidst the storms. It’s a rock for which we can always be thankful.

One more promise to mention: not only are we pledged a joyful and eternal life with God, not only is he working out all things for our ultimate good, but he’s also promised to provide us with the grace that is necessary for us to respond faithfully in our circumstances. Paul himself found this out when troubled by his mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” He pleaded three times with the Lord to take it away. The Lord’s response? It wasn’t to remove the thorn. Instead he answered Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). There’s much to say about this passage, but here we need particularly to see that it points to the fact that the Lord is able to see his people through their difficulties to the proper end, whatever that might be. And this again is something for which we can be thankful no matter what we’re experiencing.

Having now thought a bit about the reasons we might have to give thanks even in the midst of suffering and difficulty, we’re in a better position to see why God might give us the command to do so.

In the midst of difficulty and suffering, it can be very tempting to wallow in the mire, to give up exercising hope, to give into despair. But developing the discipline of being thankful lets us get our attention off of those things. It helps us consciously think about the very real blessings that are ours, the great promises that God has given to his people. And when we do that, we begin to take comfort in and be encouraged by those promises and the grace they offer. We encourage the hope we need to walk faithfully and with perseverance.

One final point: the command to give thanks also holds for times of blessing and success, and it’s worth reflecting a moment on that as well. If you’re like me in those circumstances, you might a tendency to see yourself as the primary reason for any positive outcomes. But with this artificially high opinion comes a certain forgetfulness that our biggest need, day by day and moment-by-moment, is the grace of God. We are, after all, decidedly dependent creatures.

By taking the time to thank God in the good times, we begin to fight pride, giving credit where credit is due. We acknowledge that everything we have, we’ve ultimately been given. And that, in turn, helps to keep us humble and rightly dependent upon God’s good provision.

As it turns out, then, giving thanks in all circumstances not only honors God as he so richly deserves, but it also has real practical benefits for you and me. Even here, in his command for us to be thankful, God is exceptionally gracious.

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